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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Philippines says 'big possibility' Malaysian militant leader killed

Mahmud Ahmad, one of Malaysia's most wanted men, is believed to have been pivotal in funding the siege of Marawi, which has lasted almost five months and killed more than 1,000 people, mostly rebels

Black smoke billows from destroyed buildings after artillery fire from government troops hits the remaining militant postion near the lake in Marawi, on the southern island of Mindanao. Ted Aljibe / AFP
Black smoke billows from destroyed buildings after artillery fire from government troops hits the remaining militant postion near the lake in Marawi, on the southern island of Mindanao. Ted Aljibe / AFP

The Philippine military said on Thursday there was a "big possibility" that a top Malaysian militant tipped to become ISIL's point man in South-east Asia has been killed in an overnight battle.

Thirteen militants among the few dozen ISIL loyalists remaining in the decimated heart of Marawi City were killed in the operation and Malaysian Mahmud Ahmad was likely among them, taskforce deputy commander Colonel Romeo Brawner said.

"There is a big possibility that Dr Mahmud is among them but we will only be definite once we have a match of probably DNA samples, maybe of the dental records," Col Brawner said.

If confirmed, the death of Mahmud would be a significant blow to any effort by ISIL — which is on the back foot in Syria and Iraq - to establish a presence in Mindanao, a vast Philippine island where lawlessness, poverty and rebellion have prevailed for decades.

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Mahmud, one of Malaysia's most wanted men, is believed to have been pivotal in funding the siege of Marawi, which has lasted almost five months and killed more than 1,000 people, mostly rebels.

Some experts say he could become ISIL's "emir" in South-east Asia after the death on Monday of Isnilon Hapilon, the head of the militant alliance that laid siege to Marawi.

Hapilon, a faction leader of the Abu Sayyaf group who is wanted by the FBI, was killed early on Monday along with Omarkhayam Maute, one of two leaders of the Maute militant clan, with whom he teamed up to try to carve out an ISIL "wilaya" (state) in the southern Philippines.

The alliance was strengthened by fighters from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Middle East, among other countries, and Mahmud, a 39-year-old former university lecturer, is believed to have been central to attracting funds to finance the operations.

He was seen in a video alongside Hapilon and the Maute brothers plotting the Marawi siege. Security experts say he studied in Pakistan before going to Afghanistan where he learnt to make bombs at an Al Qaeda camp. He left Malaysia in 2014.

Col Brawner reiterated that the military was not certain of Mahmud's death and was still trying to determine how many fighters were left.

"The resistance is still there. In fact, we can hear from the background, the battle is ongoing," he said, as intermittent gunfire rang out.